How the Marvel Cinematic Universe Chooses Its Heroes

With Shang-Chi and the rest of Phase 4 on the horizon, Kevin Feige opens up about how Marvel chooses the characters that will headline the MCU.

Simu Liu in the MCU's Shang-Chi
Photo: Marvel Studios

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become one of the most valuable storytelling properties in the world and it’s done so not always by betting on the most popular characters. This was certainly the case with Iron Man, the MCU’s first proper installment, which centered what was widely considered to be second-tier Marvel character at the time. In his book The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies (via ScreenRant), film historian Ben Fritz explains that Marvel originally intended to open the MCU with Captain American, but that plans changed when focus groups of children chose Iron Man as the character with the coolest abilities and weapons, and therefore the toy they would most like to play with. More than 15 years later, looking forward to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings the next era of the MCU, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige is opening up a bit more about how the entertainment company chooses the characters who will become the MCU’s next heroes.

Feige spoke to Men’s Health for their latest cover story, touching on the misstep that was casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in 2016’s Doctor Strange, and diving into the MCU character selection process. According to the interview, Marvel has a binder full of “great characters who could make great movies regardless of how famous they [are]” that has existed since the MCU’s inception. Feige said that the earlier filmic success of Blade, which was far from one of Marvel’s most popular comics, taught the MCU decision-makers an important lesson heading into the franchise.

“That sort of proved early on that it wasn’t about how famous the character was,” said Feige, “but about how great their potential was for becoming a cool movie, or series of movies. And Shang-Chi has had that potential for so long.”

Now that the MCU is heading into a new era post-Endgame (Phase 4 begins with Black Widow), there’s room to expand the MCU stable in new and interesting ways—and hopefully without making the kinds of cultural appropriative missteps of a movie like Doctor Strange. Shang-Chi has been on the MCU’s radar for a while, and presumably is a character/comic in the aforementioned binder. The film has been in mostly passive development since 2001, when Blade director Stephen Norrington signed on to direct an adaptation, but, prior to that, in the 1980s, Stan Lee tried to make an adaptation happen with Bruce Lee as the star. After the success of Black Panther in 2018, Marvel fast-tracked the development of Shang-Chi, hoping to capitalize on underserved audiences with a connection to and/or interest in Asian and Asian American cultures in the same way Black Panther did with African and Black American cultural influences.

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With Shang-Chi, the MCU is obviously hoping to court China, currently the biggest box office in the world (and with an increasing and somewhat worrying influence on Hollywood decision-making). “It’s about having a foot in both worlds,” Feige told Men’s Health. “In the North American world and in China. And [star] Simu [Liu] fits that quite well.”

Which Marvel characters would you like to see headlining their own MCU films in the future? Let us know in the comments below.